As Robert Frost pointed out a century ago, there are times in life to pursue the road not taken. The analogy was apt for me in 2015, as one path I had walked for many years came to an end, and I set off down some new ones.
Working at a school like Eton was an extraordinary privilege. That extraordinariness showed itself in so many ways, not least the outstanding quality and endless dedication of all the staff. But teachers are nothing without pupils, so it was the extraordinary boys who passed through Eton each year whom I will remember most. Eton students excel and shine not just because they are bright and talented, but because of the environment that surrounds them. Boarding is the beating heart of that environment, as any one of the 1,300 or so boys at Eton’s 25 boarding houses soon realises when they go there. Without boarding, Eton would never be able to offer the enriching life experience that its students enjoy.
Some of that experience comes from having the extra time to try new things, explore new worlds, or study a little harder or deeper without the pressures of travelling home each day. The real fullness however flows from living alongside others, learning how to give or to take, when to follow and when to lead, how to deal with people of very different temperament and character, and understanding the nuances of a shared life under a common roof. In my years at a variety of different schools, be it Eton as a boy, or Tonbridge, Brentwood, Chigwell and Oakham as a master, my belief in the value of boarding has remained undiminished
Boarding, regardless of background or wealth, offers students a transformative experience that is in so many ways an ideal preparation for life ahead. That experience could be at Eton, or any one of the 500 or so independent or state boarding schools across the UK. It could be in an all-boys, all-girls or co-ed environment; it could be in the oldest and most ancient institutions; or it could be within a new school like Holyport College in Windsor, which Eton has been very proud to support.
Good, modern boarding can foster confidence, encourage independence and prepare young people to face the slings and arrows of the world with purpose and equanimity. If part of the secret of success is a Kiplingesque sang froid when events conspire against us, then those who have boarded are well placed to be resilient and prosper.
In preparing to leave Eton, it was with no little pride that I accepted the BSA’s offer to become Honorary President in 2015–16. As the BSA has celebrated its golden jubilee, there is no more appropriate time to remind both our followers and sceptics about the true value of boarding. I enjoyed playing a small part in helping the BSA to mark this tremendous milestone, and perhaps set the course for the next half century of promoting the boarding cause.
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